Raising difficult questions about Jewish slumlords

Back in the spring, the Village Voice published a series on the worst landlords in New York City.

It’s a topic the Voice has visited many times over the years.

This year, a Conservative rabbi named Jill Jacobs wrote a column for the Forward about an extremely sensitive issue that arose when she read about the worst landlords in the Voice. Why, she wanted to know, were about half the landlords on the list Jewish — and significant figures in ultra-Orthodox communities?

She asked: “Will Jewish organizations continue to accept donations from landlords whose wealth comes at the expense of guaranteeing safe living conditions for their tenants? Will these landlords continue to be accorded positions of honor in their Jewish communities? Or are we finally ready for teshuvah?”

Now the Voice has followed up on this very delicate question by asking a number of Jewish leaders to address the question. The headline is “How Can a Religious Person Justify Being a Slumlord?” The responses make for fascinating reading.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of an Orthodox social-justice group, says (in part): “It is a concern for me. There’s injustice coming from every community, but when one publicly portrays their piety, the community naturally holds them to a higher standard. It’s always a concern of mine that ultra-Orthodox Jews are going to get scapegoated. So I think it’s up to us to clean it up, and not for outsiders to point fingers at Jews.”

Isaac Abraham, described as an “unofficial spokesman of Williamsburg’s Satmar Jews to the outside world,” says: “The landlord has to be responsible to provide services. But it gets to a point where a landlord is chasing his own tail. I didn’t create the phrase “Graffiti creates graffiti, vandalism creates vandalism.” Any landlord who doesn’t provide services, he should be hit by the book.”

Shmarya Rosenberg, a former member of Chabad Lubavitch who writes a controversial blog about the Orthodox world called FailedMessiah.com, says: “Once you’re inside the group, there are few crimes you can commit. There are few crimes that anyone can put against you. If the slumlord was doing it to hipsters or Puerto Ricans or blacks, it would be fine. They aren’t going to condemn that person or say he shouldn’t have an aliyah in synagogue or say he shouldn’t be rewarded.”

Joe Levin, an Hasidic Jew and private investigator, says: “I watch the news, and I see these things about these Orthodox guys. This is the nature of some people, screwing around for a little money and embarrassing the whole community. I say to myself, “If you have to do these things, why call yourself a rabbi? Why put this title on yourself? Why do it?” ”

Unfortunately, the public raising of these issues will bring the crazies out of the woodwork, especially on the Web (where so many crazies feel free to be themselves).

I was reading something on Yahoo News the other day about Bernie Madoff’s son committing suicide and half the comments were anti-Semitic rants.

But that is the world in which we live.